And though for Japan Spring traditionally starts on the 2nd of February I don’t think anyone was even remotely fooled, beyond a few kids who optimistically tried to pick the ‘Spring’ card during the pre-lesson date-weather-schedule ritual. But now as I type this it’s raining outside. Actual, honest-to-God rain, in liquid form and everything! That said, the last time it rained and I got excited it turned out to be a flat-shaking storm to which snow was added in the morning. The emphatically above-zero temperatures, however, suggest that we may indeed be out of the woods. It’s as though a switch has been flipped, and suddenly it was 15 degrees yesterday!
But it wouldn’t be right to see off the long and cold winter without any ceremony at all, so off I (and several others) went three hours north to Hijiori Onsen to ‘do some digging.’ And my was there stuff to dig.
Driving up, the only things I knew for sure were:
- We would be in teams
- The weekend, including staying overnight in a ryokan with dinner and breakfast, was free
- There would be digging, likely of snow
As it turned out, I was right on all counts, but not to the degree I expected.
A number of other ALTs from around Yamagata had availed of the offer of a free weekend, and we all met up at the hotel. In a display of unbelievable tact, the hotel organised a room for the male and female members of each team separately, and laid different tables for each team too. While it was refreshing not to face the assumption that, as foreigners, we all knew each other, it was regrettable that in this instance we actually did all know each other. The arrangement led to me getting a private room, though, which is something.
My team, Hashi Jyōzu (Good at Chopsticks, in imitation of every Japanese Mealtime Acquaintance Ever), consisted six brave souls, all roughly as unprepared as I was, though they did all bring salopettes so the joke was on me come crunch time. Before that, though, we needed to survive an enormous meal and then get chivvied off to an even bigger party to meet the other teams. As it turned out, there were almost 40 teams of varying sizes packed into one room, which just so happened also to be filled with many donated crates of beer from the myriad TV crews hanging around the edges.
Something that struck me a good few hours into the evening, during a hanagasa (flower hat) dance endemic to Yamagata, was that, while we were certainly marked out as ‘not from around these parts,’ the guys waving their hats around on stage weren’t doing it for us as tourists. This was a party and that’s what you do at times like these. Say it with me: a u t h e n t i c i t y.
After a remarkably long night of alternately drinking and stewing in hot water, we emerged bright and early and were walked to the local junior high school. The school’s playing field was covered in nearly four metres of snow, and our job as a team was to dig down until we reached dirt, then sprint over to the head judge and give it to him.
But first an order had to be established, and what better way than by sledging? I braved the hill and got us a respectable middle-placement, which meant we got to choose a plot that wasn’t absurdly far removed from the start line.
After a frankly absurd five-minute countdown, off we (and everyone else) raced to our respective plots and began digging. Although we had been told that digging spiral steps is the main strategy, we were definitely unpracticed. By the time we were halfway we had already picked up a number of spectators (including but not limited to most of the TV cameras at one point) who had finished their own plots and had come to cheer us on. Some call-and-response singing ensued as we worked, and in the end it was me at the bottom of a thin metre-and-a-half pit in the centre of our little mine that struck land.
We reveled in our mediocre victory (29th out of 39 and a time for roughly 53 minutes, for those playing at home) and took some photos before being informed we had to fill our hole in now because someone might fall in and hurt themselves. Doing the whole thing in reverse took less time but was just as arduous for our souls.
The winning team, comprised of just two people, managed the whole thing in about 13 minutes, and had left a well-set snowman on their plot by the time we crawled out of ours. Given that the whole experience was free, however, I’m happy to count the Taking Part on this one. Plus I got to star in my own reaction gif, which is a win of sorts I suppose.